I've been mulling over the uTopian Turtle Top post regarding John Cage (and previously linked in the Music Carnival post here) because it resonates with my own complicated feelings about this deeply influential composer.
When I was 18 and filling out applications for a university education I recall having to write an essay along the lines of "If you could meet any individual, living or dead, real or work of fiction, who would it be and why?" I chose Cage. I had read Silence a couple of times by then and found it inspired. I had driven all night to Seattle to hear a premier of a new Cage work at Cornish. I could already detect his influence on so many composers that I admired that he seemed like the source of a mighty stream of American music.
I'm sure many people my age applied to that same school and wrote their own essay. I don't know who other people chose to meet in their imagination but a year later I met my "one person I would like to meet." Cage was a featured composer at a conference where I managed to get him to sign my beat up copy of Silence and later he and I had a conversation about harmony. After a lifetime of expressing unease with the traditional definition of harmony he had recently had his ears opened up to a new understanding of it through "Critical Band" by James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening project. He was in his late 70s and held all the enthusiasm and awe of a child who had discovered birthday parties. It was a wonderful conversation. And meeting this charismatic soul was like discovering Santa Claus.
John Cage is Arnold Schoenberg's most influential pupil. Much more so than Webern or Berg. His music and his ideas are and were a radical challenge to challenge one's assumptions about the nature of music and learn to separate our personal biases from the inescapable bliss we often choose to ignore. I've heard several Cage compositions performed live and find enormous value in an admittedly uneven creative output.
But John "uTopian" Shaw nails it with this passage: Cage's famous principle of 'non-selection' reflects a moment in history long past, when American hegemony was at its height and the 'spirit of progress' had not yet gotten ground under the steamroller of Reaganism that reigns in America to this day; the 1950s and '60s were a time of unprecedented and unrepeated upward mobility in American economic life; an aesthetic of 'attention' that Cage and Rauschenberg preached and practiced reflected a cultural wealth and an optimistic spirit that have long since gone to smash and splatter.
Cage lived long enough to see this process unfold. By the time I met him the era of the manifesto had passed. Somehow the art of proclaiming a bold, progressive position and aesthetic had fallen into ill repute. This is a sad passing as I reflect upon the excitement of discovering the words in Silence or Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music or even Cornelius Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism. Even the great transcendentalist writings of Emerson and Thoreau that deeply influenced Charles Ives and John Cage seem suspiciously absent of any contemporary equivalent. Which is sad. It seems that it would be nice to set out a tract in the manifesto tradition without feeling a sense of irony about it. It feels like a casualty of the failure of the serialists' broad proclamation of "the music of the future" to materialize as advertised. Now all such bold aesthetic predictions are regarded with suspicion and scorn.
The question becomes how to proceed post-Cage and post manifesto. In this path one develops a complex relationship with one's heroes. Much of Cage stays with me. He springs to mind whenever I take a walk in the woods making sure to notice all the mushrooms that are always there if you see them or not. He points toward an honesty in perception and how one learns from it that is valuable. His use of indeterminacy brings this honesty to the foreground. The "indeterminacy" as a process or procedure may not work for everyone and probably has a limited path forward. But perception remains inescapable. And in the aftermath of the "steamroller of Reaganism" that has altered so much perception and relegated so much art as mere entertainment or ecommoditycomodity it becomes an important tool and coping mechanism.
Part of what makes Cage so resonant is that it allows one to separate sound from the emotions it is assumed to provoke. In this way it has heightened my own sensitivity to (and abhorance of) music motivated by a deliberate intention to manipulate emotional responses and inoculates against it. It points toward a music that is much more transcendent than the dictatorial impulse to force a singular emotional response or association. Emotions are such a key part of the human experience that it seems like bad form to manipulate them. This is much like the unattractive element of organized religions and cults that use social pressure to demand a particular emotional attachment to prescribed points of doctrine.
The conversation I imagined having with Cage in my admissions essay was different from the conversation I actually had. And the conversation I carry on with him now in his absence is different still as this hero takes on different contexts with the passage of time.